U.S. Supreme Court orders eleventh-hour stay of execution

Updated - May 22, 2014 03:09 am IST

Published - May 21, 2014 08:50 pm IST - Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court took matters into its hands to halt an execution in Missouri an hour before it was scheduled to begin on Wednesday, effectively blocking the state from carrying out the first lethal injection killing since a botched procedure in Oklahoma left an inmate writhing in agony before he died of a heart attack in April.

In his order late on Tuesday night, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito did not explain why he suspended the scheduled execution of Russell Bucklew (46), sentenced to death for killing a man during a violent crime spree in 1996, but he indicated that “he or the High Court will have more to say about the matter.”

On April 29, Clayton Lockett took 43 minutes to die after guards struggled to find a vein into which they could pump the drugs. The procedure was botched so badly that Lockett died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, and in a rare gesture President Barack Obama stepped into the controversy describing the treatment of Lockett as “inhumane.”

Following the incident, the Oklahoma attorney-general's office declared a six-month moratorium on executions pending a state investigation into the procedure.

With his execution date approaching Bucklew’s lawyers petitioned the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a stay order, “citing concerns over the secrecy of Missouri’s purchasing of the execution drug pentobarbital,” which were exacerbated by worries that Bucklew could suffer “cruel and unusual punishment” during the lethal injection due to his affliction with cavernous hemangioma, described as a rare medical condition that causes weakened and malformed blood vessels, as well as tumours in his nose and throat.

Most U.S. states carrying out executions use a single- double- or triple-drug protocol for the lethal injection, and much of the procedural variation and secrecy in lethal drug sourcing seen in recent years stems from shortages of sodium thiopental that began around 2010.

Since that time U.S. correctional facilities sought to import drugs from abroad, including from Europe and India, although media attention, including in The Hindu led to the Indian suppliers such as Kayem Pharma and Naari pulling out of the supply chain.

With the FDA’s right to sanction lethal drug importations facing legal hurdles U.S. prisons have in large numbers switched to the use of pentobarbital, an animal euthanasia drug, to dispatch inmates.

Last month, The Guardian , The Associated Press and three other media outlets challenged the “growing secrecy adopted by death penalty states to hide the source of their lethal injection drugs,” arguing that under the first amendment of the U.S. constitution the American people had a right to know how the ultimate punishment was being carried out in their name.

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